Rapid Change in the Forensic DNA Workflow
Written by Dale Garrison   

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DNA analysis has brought a remarkably powerful tool to law enforcement, sometimes leading to an arrest or exoneration years after a crime is committed.


Photo: Like the Arizona Department of Public Safety, the Richland County (South Carolina) Sheriff's Department, led by Sheriff Leon Lott, has integrated Rapid DNA instrumentation into their crime laboratory.

Yet the time required to get from a sample to a profile has long been a sticking point for DNA analysis. The traditional approach to DNA profiling often involves shipping samples to centralized laboratories, followed by a multi-step process that can take weeks or even months to return results. DNA analysis backlogs in forensic laboratories sometimes mean long delays, even with violent crimes. With lesser offenses, such as property crime, the backlog and long delays may mean that it is not worth pursuing the remote possibility of obtaining a hit.

That’s now changing dramatically, thanks to Rapid DNA.

Rapid DNA technology involves a relatively compact piece of equipment that effectively combines the power of a sophisticated laboratory and its expert personnel. With moderate training, an officer can place raw samples into a disposable cartridge about the size of a thick envelope and insert the cartridge into the mechanism. In less than two hours, the officer will have a DNA profile.

The phrase “sea change” may not be adequate to describe this revolution.

Arizona Breakthroughs

In May 2014, the Arizona Department of Public Safety became one of the first agencies in the United States to complete the validation process of its new Rapid DNA instruments, making the innovative new tools available for use with investigations. A year later, the same agency uploaded DNA profiles to the National DNA Index System, the highest level of the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) managed by the FBI—a notable achievement that demonstrates that the new process has truly arrived on the investigative playing field.

Arizona’s DPS now has Rapid DNA instruments that can produce results in minutes and that are acceptable for submission to a system with one of the highest standards in the nation.

“It used to be six to 12 weeks, at least,” noted Vince Figarelli, superintendent of the Arizona DPS Crime Laboratory. “Now, with Rapid DNA, we can generate profiles in 90 minutes.”

Figarelli likens its advance over previous DNA-analysis methods to advances in computer technology. “It’s like Moore’s law in computing,” the 25-year law enforcement veteran said. “Computer processing power doubles every two years. But this also combines several instruments into one, and it’s actually much easier to use.”

That user friendliness combined with raw speed makes for faster results and more accessible testing—meaning an invariable increase in the numbers and types of crimes impacted by DNA testing.

“This means solving crimes,” Figarelli said. “With a burglary, you’d normally be talking months, if at all. Now, officers can be testing samples while someone’s still being held.”

In terms of workflow, Arizona has made some changes to both take advantage of the equipment and ensure accuracy. For example, blood at a burglary scene—something that might have been ignored until now—can be processed within minutes and compared against in-state and regional databases. Arizona has also determined that such samples must be large enough to allow for traditional lab testing, as well, in case verification is needed.

Compact Footprint

Though not its first selling point, Rapid DNA systems are also extremely compact, resembling a large office printer with a user-friendly, digital screen for controls. Some Rapid DNA systems, for example, are only a little more than two by two feet and carry a relatively slim weight of 180 pounds—small enough to be transported if necessary. This is in stark contrast with traditional DNA profiling equipment, which includes up to six separate devices that require operation by highly specialized technicians. This spring, several Arizona DPS detectives completed a Rapid DNA operator’s course that qualified them to process single-source samples such as blood and saliva utilizing the newly validated instruments.

“Our officers can just bring samples in and run them,” Figarelli said. “It’s literally a push-button analysis. Then there’s a good chance they can pursue leads within hours.”

This huge leap in “immediate feedback” has so many ramifications that the impact is difficult to estimate. Especially with repeat offenders such as a serial burglar, Rapid DNA can mean crimes are not only solved; they are prevented.

“There is a very good chance our officers can pursue a lead within hours,” Figarelli said. “We may even get DNA results while someone is still in custody. The impact of this is really dramatic.”

While Arizona’s public safety officers have only been using the equipment to investigate leads for about a year, they have already charged suspects in several assaults, property crimes, and shootings as a result of Rapid DNA testing. A key feature is the nearly instantaneous ability to search Arizona Arrestee and Convicted Offender DNA profiles, identifying investigative leads and dismissing dead ends. A DPS detective with the Vehicular Crimes Unit even utilized the Rapid DNA process to identify a suspect.

“The chemistry to do the DNA analysis is the same for Rapid DNA as it is for traditional methods and has been approved,” Figarelli explained. “This is the same process, just using a different instrument.”

Serious Crimes

Although the ease of use and immediacy of Rapid DNA have broadened its use to property crime and beyond, violent and other serious crimes remain a priority. Even here there is change, however. One case for Arizona involved semen samples found at the scene of a sexual assault that were linked to a suspect in custody, who is alleged to have “graduated” from peeping Tom to more serious offenses. Although traditional DNA would have eventually identified the suspect, Rapid DNA compressed the time frame to days rather than months and very probably resulted in an arrest before additional and more serious crimes were committed.

In both the police station and laboratory, Rapid DNA brings some procedural change. Arizona purchased its first Rapid DNA system in 2013 and immediately began officer training and internal validation. The validation effort, however, laid the groundwork for FBI CODIS validation. To take advantage of the new speed on even relatively minor cases, Arizona now aims for same-day analysis of select arrestee samples, upon request by the submitting agency—a goal that was unthinkable until now.

“The ideal workflow that we are working toward is to run a sample the day we get it,” Figarelli said. “That’s the goal: get it in as quickly as possible.”

Even this is only a start and more change is likely as the system’s advantages are fully utilized. “We want to have several of these at locations around the state,” Figarelli said. “Being able to search databases within hours is a tremendous advantage. You’re looking at not only solving crimes but preventing them by getting someone off the street quickly.”

 

 
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